Innovation and Lean Product Development


This is another portion of my on-going series for Innovation, Lean, Lean Startup, and Agile, see my last one here.

So far we’ve talked about how to combine some of the various theories together. For example looking how Lean and Agile work together or Lean startup and Lean work together. Similarly we looked briefly at how Lean Startup and Agile can be meshed, but haven’t discussed this much. Today we’re going to look at how the Lean Product Development methodology can be combined with the theories purported in the Theory of Disruption. I will look at how these can be combined with yesterdays article tomorrow.

Lean Product Development is a natural outgrowth of Lean manufacturing. It is how Toyota is able to continuously develop new products at a faster rate than their North American competitors. It is how Toyota is able to create new designs that are extremely high quality and disruptive to the market.

In the Innovator’s Solution, Christensen argues that integration and modularity are on a swinging pendulum where due to the constraints on the “not good enough” technology, that a more integrative approach is required because a fully modular design would reduce performance below thresholds that customers would be willing to pay for. Christensen argues that this would occur because relationships between firms dictate how new technologies can be developed. Whenever firms work jointly on a technology there must be agreements in terms how the components interconnect with each other. These underlying interfaces between technologies evolve much more slowly whenever there are multiple firms are working at the interface of these technologies.

Allen Ward writes about Toyota’s methodology for product development. He calls this approach Set Based Concurrent Design, where there are multiple different designs for a given new product from the start. For the case of the Prius, Toyota started the process with incredibly lofty goals and over 20 initial designs. These designs were kept loose initially, until they were reduced down to four that were selected to be turned into clay molds. During this time Toyota had been working closely with their suppliers, where they had no plans to insource more of their components than for a typical car. As it stands Toyota uses suppliers to provide roughly 75% of components to their cars, while focusing on the hardest components like the Engine and body. Similarly to a gas car, for the Prius Toyota elected to keep ownership of the drive train, and the hybrid engine systems. Otherwise everything else would be managed in a similar process as any other car.

To manage for the uncertainty of their four designs, they provided their suppliers with a range of requirements. Engineers at Toyota and their suppliers developed a range of “Trade-off” curves, which provide the ranges of trades-offs between different features and the limitations of those features. For example, engine vibration will have a trade-off with the tolerances of the Pistons. These trade-off curves increase the rate of learning for a given product and reduces the risk for a new product development.

This means with more information shared between companies there is less need for companies to oscillate between heavily integrated designs and modular designs. For an organization like Toyota the desire to share information and creating a formal process to enable disruptive innovation without owning the entire new product is a huge advantage for the organization. Toyota is actively investing in new capabilities and disrupting their competition.

This of course doesn’t disprove what Christensen is saying though. This approach has worked well for Toyota but has not been adopted by many other organizations. This is one of the problems that companies are having with disruptive technology. Furthermore, Toyota inherently turns new product development into a pseudo skunk works, which is what Christensen recommends for these ventures, by making their Chief Engineer a mini CEO for the product as well as dedicating, or as close as possible, engineering and manufacturing resources to the tasks. Finally, Toyota focuses on a few key elements that will be disruptive while reusing a great deal of older technologies maximizing technology reuse and learning from historic projects.

2 thoughts on “Innovation and Lean Product Development

  1. Pingback: Lean canvas, Lean Development, the Theory of Disruption | Science, Technology, + Culture

  2. Pingback: How to manage those Innovations? | Science, Technology, + Culture

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